2012 Design of the Year: Fisker Karma
So now it's real: series production is underway and the first Fisker Karma sedans -- five as of the Frankfurt show in September -- are in the hands of private individuals, much to the surprise of the naysayers who've insisted it's all scam and vaporware. There is no way to know yet whether Fisker will be a Lamborghini-style success or a De Lorean-style failure. But what we do know, just by looking at it, is that the Karma is a beautiful and highly dramatic automobile, unlike anything else on the road today and yet very much like dozens of the most beloved sports cars of the past.
That's as it should be. Henrik Fisker is madly in love with sports cars -- and has been since he was a student at the Art Center College of Design (Europe) in the late 1980s. It's not every student designer who drives himself to school every day in one of his three sports cars -- an Alfa Romeo with a front engine and rear gearbox, a transverse mid-engine Matra Murena, and a Porsche with the engine out back. Nor does the typical graduate designer manage to work on a major sports car project -- the Z8 -- at a company like BMW, a management job running BMW's Designworks in California, or a post as head designer and board member for an iconic firm like Aston Martin. Fisker accomplished all that in only sixteen years, before going out on his own with Fisker Coachbuild to customize BMW and Mercedes-Benz sports models.
With Bernhard Koehler, the cofounder and partner with whom he worked at both BMW and Aston Martin, Fisker found financial support from the supplier industry and the government -- a $529 million loan guarantee for the acquisition of a former General Motors manufacturing plant in Delaware will allow production of his next car in the United States. The Karma now comes from boutique Finnish manufacturer Valmet, which built Saab convertibles and Porsche Boxsters in the past. Quality appears to be first-rate, although some of the editors at Automobile Magazine find the Karma's interior slightly homemade and less impressive than its voluptuous overall body form.
Details like the solar energy receptors in the glass roof, the use of reclaimed wood for interior trim, the lozenge-shaped openings low on the outer corners of the bumpers, and the outlets on the sills ahead of the front doors are all visually interesting but not obtrusively so. The weakest part of the design is the grille, a bit too Aston Martin influenced but finally looking rather like the mustache of a nineteenth-century stage villain. The overall proportions are exaggerated, with a very long wheelbase and extreme hood length. That's a lot of surface to cover the four-cylinder GM engine that keeps electricity flowing after the batteries run dry, but it's hard to fault the overall effect. This is an impressive car, outstanding on the road, and very much a worthy Design of the Year.